So far, this blog has tried to defy the traditional understanding of South. Before we speak against our home, we wanted to show a little bit about why we value it. This blog is an open love letter, of sorts, to our home and to anyone who misunderstands her. We wanted to show the parts of our region that you probably hadn’t considered before, so that you would have a perception other than the rumors you’ve heard. But what you’ve heard is true—at least in part. Here, we do not look white men in the eye. Here, a white woman calls you girl, and what she means is you are not a woman to me. Here, the Confederate flag* did fly.
I am not really scared of the Confederate flag. It was never really an option for me. Right now, I can think of at least four places I could see one if I drove for five minutes from my home (one of those places is no longer a Walmart, shout out to that.) Living like that doesn’t quite create a fear—at least it didn’t in me. Instead, what it creates is an understanding. To me, seeing that flag anywhere—on a person, building, or vehicle (there are lots on vehicles) means something quite specific: you do not belong here.
I understand this in a pretty literal way. If I see a Confederate flag on a car, that is not the car to try to pass down the highway. If I see the flag on a person, that is a person I should not be near. If I see a Confederate flag in a restaurant, I am not wanted in that restaurant.
But this creates complications when the flag is used very intentionally in very public places. For example, there are seven states in the Union that include, to some extent, a representation or memorial to the Confederacy in their State flag. These states are southern states, and I have been to all of them, bar Arkansas (which I am in no rush to get to, it will be there when I’m ready). And yes, until just this very summer, the Confederate flag flew at my own state capital, on a pole fifteen minutes from my front door, on a monument I was very familiar with. Anyone who’s been to the State House has to be—the flag stood on a pole out in front of the building, way up high, and was not lowered to half mast for anything, not even when 9 people were killed by a man inspired by this flag, not even when the state and national flags were lowered.
I think the easiest way to understand my response to these symbols when they are in places of reverence is to give a quick history of the Confederate flag in relation with the South, specifically, South Carolina. In case your public education has failed you like mine has when it comes to history, I’ll start at the beginning, or as close as I can. South Carolina was one of the original 13 colonies that declared themselves a new nation in 1776. Apparently, we liked this practice, because South Carolina did it again by declaring its secession from the Union in 1860, (and here’s some flags they used, if you’re curious) and in 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. Almost 20,000 confederate South Carolinians died before it rejoined in 1865, and that was that for the flag in official capacities for a while. But the flag reappeared on top South Carolina’s State House (which is in Columbia, the capital of SC, lots of people don’t seem to know that) in 1962, supposedly to honor the hundred-year anniversary of the Civil War, but also in response to the rising Civil Rights Movement. There it flew for about 40 years, until in 2000, it was placed out front of the State House, next to the Confederate monument, both of which were the first things seen when facing the State House. This continued til 2015, despite a large number of boycotts of the state of South Carolina by sports associations and protests by local residents and business owners.
It is the penultimate use of the Confederate flag by the State of South Carolina, its placement right on top in 1962, that really speaks, to me, of what it can be like to be black in the South. The state house is a physical symbol of the State, of all it can accomplish and everything it stands for. When that flag was placed on top in 1962, it meant something specific— or are we supposed to believe it was a coincidence that the symbol of the KKK was placed on the State House during the Civil Rights Movement? That flag said to black South Carolinians, “you do not belong here.”
And yet, we are here, largely thanks to white South Carolinians who brought us to this country through Charleston, which brought anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of all slaves into the country. We are here, in large quantities, and always have been. For much of this state’s history, African Americans were the majority of the population, and now we have the fifth highest African-American population in the nation. There is no South Carolina without black people and their contributions, both in physical labor and the culture that the South prides itself on. How could the money to create a city as beautiful as Charleston been raised without an industry as profitable as the slave trade to support the expense? How can there be the beautiful plantations Southerners love to glorify without the slaves working to pay for and build all the extravagance, or the shrimp and grits that Southerners love to eat without their black help cooking their dinners? How could there be American folk music born of this region without black people’s musical contributions of the banjo and gospel?
I watched the flag come down from my (heavily air conditioned) living room on July 10th 2015. I watched people crowd together in the over hundred-degree heat to watch it. I watched them sing. It was, of course, one of those moments I knew I would always remember. But I did not start being a South Carolinian in that moment, when they folded the flag and placed it in the relic room. I have belonged to South Carolina since I was born here, and my people have belonged since the first black person was brought to the South. This symbol, this history, it is part of our history, but it is not the only part of story that’s worth telling. The story of black people in this country and this region does not start when we allow other people to include us. The story of this region does not end when the Confederate flag was first brought down from Fort Sumter, and it has not begun now that we have put the flag to rest. We are as much a part of the fabric of this nation as any ratty piece of cloth.
*Here, and in most of this article, we are of course speaking about the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, also known as the Stars and Bars, because it is the one that rests on the back of F-150s nationwide.